Twenty Years After Genocide's Darkness, Rwanda Turning to Solar Power
A $24-million photovoltaic field under construction in Rwanda is nearing completion on land belonging to a village built to house orphans from the central African country’s genocide 20 years ago.
Even as the nation and many parts of the world paused this month to mark this grim anniversary, Rwanda’s infrastructure is improving, and its economy, perhaps, is pursuing a steady road to growth, relying less on volatile commodity prices and more on knowledge and ease of doing business.
The 8.5-MW photovoltaic field is perched on top of a 1,500-meter hill some 60 kilometers from the capital, Kigali, on a 21-hectare site. Norwegian contractor Scatec Solar is overseeing the project construction with financial backing from FMO (the Dutch development bank), the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund, Norfund and Israeli solar pioneer Yosef Abramowitz’s Gigawatt Global. Gigawatt will keep a 20% share of the project, which will feed power into the national grid under a 25-year purchase agreement with the Rwanda Energy, Water and Sanitation Authority.
The solar park should boost Rwanda’s total grid capacity by 8% and produce 16 million kilowatt hours a year, says Christian Blom, a project manager at Scatec. In the West, 8.5 MW would power about 1,000 homes, but in Rwanda the same output goes much further.
“The power line we will connect to is recently refurbished in preparation for this project,” Blom says. “Everything is in very good shape.”
Construction started on the solar field in mid-February, with a locally-contracted firm clearing the scrub- and brush-covered hillside. The site is adjacent to and owned by the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a residential and educational center founded by the late Anne Heyman for orphaned youth from the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Agahozo-Shalom has a well-maintained main dirt road passing through it from Kigali. Blom says workers cut and connected an access road, which is able to handle heavy equipment, from the site and down the hill to the main road and then circumscribed a perimeter road for jeep traffic around the solar field for security and maintenance—about 1.6 km total.
“Right now, the site looks like a golf course,” Blom says. The site is covered in newly planted grass that is sturdy enough to prevent erosion of the red-clay soil but not tall enough to cast a shadow over the photovoltaic panels. With green views over the nearby terraced hills, the site is now ready for the electronics.
Set into a concrete pad, the panels will be arranged along several horizontal rails. The rails, which act as sun trackers, are each about 250 m long. The effect of each tracker rail is similar in appearance to what one would see on a space station: Three-hundred-watt polycrystalline photovoltaic panels are framed in pairs, one pair on each side of the rail, making four panels in a row. There are several of these rows along each horizontal tracker, which keeps the panels pointed at the sun through a 45-degree, east-to-west daytime transit in order to get the most from the photovoltaics.
The panels will not store energy, Blom says. The Rwandan utility will need to manage its grid resources to account for daytime and nighttime power use. The Agahozo-Shalom field will connect directly to the Rwandan grid, however, with the strings of panels plugged into two 900-kilowatt inverters and one 1,800-kW transformer in one of four containers on-site.